Review: The Martian

themartianBlown away from his crewmates by a violent windstorm on Mars, Mark Watney is abandoned, assumed dead. The story of how he survives makes for a riveting page-turner (these are not words I often use) in The Martian, Andy Weir’s first published book.

Mark is a mechanical engineer and a botanist on a lifeless planet. His knowledge and skills are what enable him to survive.

The Ares 3 mission was meant to last 30 days, and had food enough for six people, which means Mark’s food will run out in 6-9 months, depending on how abstemious he is. But the next mission isn’t due for four years and he has no means of communicating with Earth, so he has to find a way to stretch the contents of the pantry and supplement them.

The Martian contains one disaster after another, each surmounted by a man with a can-do attitude and an inexhaustible supply of what I would call, not optimism exactly, but positive realism. I saw the movie (with Matt Damon) over Christmas and found it excellent. But it could not cover all the detail of the book, and only partly conveyed the crippling loneliness of being the sole living entity on a planet.

Like Tom Clancy’s novels, this one has a heavy dose of tech talk, which can be skimmed. It also has plenty of heart and is a great read for that reason alone. It belongs to the make-and-do school of stories, and can stand with the best of them, like Robinson Crusoe and Lost in the Barrens. A super read.

My rating: five stars

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Two children’s books by Maggie M. Larche

Review: Charlie Bingham Gets Clocked

Charlie Bingham Gets Clocked is a great example of a tale spun from small charliebinghambeginnings. Nothing much happens, but you’d never know it. Fast-paced and funny, it takes place during a school day in the life of hero Charlie. The story revolves around a lizard and an antique alarm clock, the kind with bells on the top. The kind that makes a noise. Speculation surrounding the origins of that clock, which belongs to Charlie’s teacher, is part of the fun.

This is a new series by Maggie M Larche, and judging by the first book, it will be a great success. Highly recommended. I look forward to more stories about Charlie and his friends.

My rating: 5 stars

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Review: Striker Jones: Elementary Economics For Elementary Detectives

When he’s not doing his homework, Striker Jones solves mysteries. There arestrikerjones other boy detectives, of course, but what makes this series unusual is the economics element. Striker has an understanding of basic economics and that helps him to recognize motives, which in turn leads to identifying the culprits in each escapade.

This first book runs through the school year, from August summer holidays to Christmas, Easter and the summer again, as Striker and his friends Bill, Sheila and Amy solve crimes. Who stole the school donation funds? Who is their teacher, Miss Harper, in love with? Why did the kid nobody likes win the school election?

The series is a timely reminder that “economics” is the study of basic human needs and wants. Fun to read, Striker’s cases also help kids to understand why they—like all of us—behave the way they do.

My rating: 4 stars

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Review: Life After Life –By Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate AtkinsonWhat if you could keep reliving your life until you got it right? That’s the premise of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Set in England in the early 20th century, it’s the story of Ursula Todd and her family: parents, brothers, sisters, servants and dotty aunt. Ursula has difficulty getting through day one, as the dangers of childbirth take their toll. Eventually she gets past her baby years and enters her teens. Here, choice begins to play a part and she takes several different paths that end badly.

The London Blitz plays a role in Ursula’s story, and I enjoyed learning something of the civilian wardens who directed the search and rescue efforts after each wretched bombing attack. Burrowing into collapsed houses is not for the faint of heart and the stories range from tragic to gruesome. I don’t know whether these civilian rescuers were honoured but they were every bit as courageous as soldiers on the front lines, so I’d like to think they were.

Each of her past bad experiences leaves a wraith of memory in Ursula’s mind, something like deja vu, though often not nearly that strong. Nevertheless, she uses her hunches and a recurring sense of impending danger to chart a new course in her life, a course with a world-changing goal. I’ve got to say this was less important to me than to see her find some happiness, but the story is told so artfully that both come together in the end.

The characters are well-drawn. I couldn’t quite fathom Sylvie, the mother, but Ursula’s father was sweet and supportive, and she had an interesting and close relationship with her sister. I’ve heard her brother Teddy is the central character of a sequel, so I’ll be looking out for that.

Life After Life is a wonderful book, and manages to avoid most modern idiomatic lapses. It is not really a period piece; in fact it seemed to me to be timeless, oddly so given the plot. The author has written several other novels, and I’m looking forward to reading them.

My rating: five stars

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Review: The Octopus Barber –by Joseph Kelly

octopus-barberThis is a delightful collection of poems on subjects ranging from teamwork (one of my favorites) and remembering the club password, to gadgets and the history of a stone. “A Kiss” is priceless, turning an old storyline on its head. More thoughtful entries, like “The Tinest Ant and the Giantest Bear,” give children something to ponder after they finish reading.

The illustrations by Supakit Chiangthong are a perfect match for the words, with unexpected angles and vivid colors. The Octopus Barber is a treat, and passes my acid test for poetry—the verses are easy to read aloud—with flying colors.

(I received a free copy of The Octopus Barber in return for an honest review.)

My Rating: 5 stars

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Review: Whip Eye –by Geoffrey Saign

whipeyeThe story of an unhappy girl befriended by an unusual parrot, this first installment in The Whip Eye Chronicles moves at breakneck speed. Samantha Green and her neighbor Jake try to keep their friend Charlie out of the clutches of the villainous Magnar. Sam is still grieving the loss of her mother a year ago.

Estranged from her father, Samanth gradually comes to trust Jake as their adventures first strain then strengthen their friendship. This for me was the most satisfying aspect of the story. I also liked the part played by the various animals. I did find the back story hard to follow at times, especially the differences between the Great Ones, Originals and Lessers. But all in all, this is a book I think preteens and teens alike would enjoy.

My Rating: 4 stars 

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Review: The Buried Giant –by Kazuo Ishiguro


buriedgiantThe Buried Giant is an allegory about love, war and vengeance. Set in medieval times, it’s the story of an elderly couple and their journey to find their son. Along the way they meet Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights, a Saxon warrior and a boy. They also encounter ogres, pixies and a dragon.

The author’s intent isn’t clear: is this is a comment on the roots of terrorism or on class grievance in Britain, or just on the long arm of memory? I found the story difficult, and while I liked a sequence with the Saxons and the fiery tower, I didn’t much care for the journey as a whole. Chilblain stories (medieval, northern European settings, no central heating) often leave me feeling cold and damp. And stories in which the narrator’s memory is at fault are reminiscent of that old movie technique where a scene of horrifying violence is followed by (“Oh! Wait!”) the revelation that it was jus
t a nightmare. In fairness, The Buried Giant tells us that that the characters’ memories are clouded. Even so, it’s making heavy weather of a tale when you mistrust the smallest remembrance.

Quests and journeys are not as a rule slender stories, but this book is an exception. Following the moving Never Let Me Go, it  was for me a disappointment.

My rating: 3 stars

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Review: Medicine Walk –by Richard Wagamese

Medicine Walk by Richard WagameseI loved Medicine Walk. It takes place in the interior of British Columbia, in the northern Nechako region. It’s the story of a teenager, Frank, an angry 16-year-old who knows nothing of his mother and has been let down again and again by his drunkard father, Eldon. Frank lives with an old man on a farm, and has learned both farming and the ways of the land. Called into town to see his father, he finds him dying and anxious to be taken to the high country to be buried.

On the journey he finally unburdens himself of his past life, of Frank’s grandmother, his mother, and the old man. There is anger and bitterness and ultimately, forgiveness.

I’m a sucker for “make and do” books, so I loved the trail aspect of Medicine Walk, learning how to catch fish without a rod, edible flora, and how to face down a grizzly bear (that’s what you have to do, incidentally. Never turn and run: it doesn’t work).

I liked Frank very much. He’s one competent young Indian, understandably filled with anger at his father, but also the beneficiary of love and steadfastness from the old man who raised him. And the prose is a pleasure to read, tangible and almost crunchy. This is a good book.

My rating: 4 stars

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Review: . . . And the Whippoorwill Sang –by Micki Pelosi

whippoorwillSpanning more than fifty years, …And the Whippoorwill Sang is Micki Pelosi’s memoir of family life. Married at 17, she and her husband Butch raised their six kids on a shoestring, living mostly in the eastern US.

What sets this memoir apart is the warmth and wit of its author, who paints a wonderful picture of family life, and whose husband and children come across as unique and memorable individuals. But there is a tragedy interwoven into the chronicle: one of the children is struck by a drunk driver and lingers in intensive care for ten terrible days. This ordeal is related in stages through the chronological story.

I was unable to purchase …And the Whippoorwill Sang in book form in Canada, so I bought the Kindle version, something I don’t as a rule do because I have to sit at my computer to read it on a Kindle for PC. This turned out to be no hardship because the book was so easy to read. It is a wonderful, sometimes hilarious, story of life back in the sixties and seventies, and a poignant memoir of love and loss.

My rating: 5 stars

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Review: The Orenda –by Joseph Boyden

The Orenda by Joseph BoydenThe Orenda has riveting characters and a fascinating portrayal of village life. I loved the Iroquois girl, Snow Falls, and the Huron chief, Bird. I was less enchanted with the Jesuit, Christophe, though one couldn’t doubt his sincerity and depth of belief. The story, it has to be said, is also bloodsoaked and brutal, and is hard reading at times. I’m not sure why Boyden felt it necessary to go into such detail. Was it that torture was integral to the Indian way of life? I preferred reading about the three sisters (corn, beans and squash, the staple diet), and the village long houses.

At one point, Christophe says that the Indians in their leggings, with furs draped over one shoulder, remind him of the ancient Greeks with their togas. That image may remain with me.

My rating: 5 stars

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Review: The Silent Wife –by A.S.A. Harrison

silentwifeJodi and Todd have been together for twenty years when over the space of a few months he leaves her for another woman and, as we learn on page two of The Silent Wife, she proceeds to turn into a killer.

Todd is an entrepreneur who gentrifies old buildings, Jodi is a psychologist and they have a waterfront condo in Chicago. The story is told in alternating chapters of Him and Her, and my sympathies veered from one character to the other, finally settling reluctantly between them both. A well-told story.

My rating: 4 stars

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